Three elderly people have been killed and hundreds left critically injured as major wildfires continue to sweep across the Portuguese island of Madeira, destroying homes and municipal buildings in their wake.
Over 1,000 residents are thought to have been removed from their homes in rural areas, with a further 250 forced to spend the night in military facilities after the flames reached the capital Funchal, according to local officials.
A large number of homes were destroyed in the blaze and around 174 people sought medical attention, while police officers confirmed the unnamed pensionners died when their home caught fire near the centre of the capital in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
On Tuesday evening, Portugal’s civil protection service said more than 4,000 firefighters were attending to 150 separate blazes, with seven major fires currently out of control.
Eight firefighters required medical treatment after inhaling smoke as high winds fanned the blaze. Over 200 patients were evacuated from a small hospital as a precaution and a five-star hotel was burnt to the ground.
Meanwhile several international flights were cancelled after winds blew a large quantity of ash across Funchal airport and a major shopping centre was closed for the day.
Local news footage showed a huge cloud of smoke drifting over downtown Funchal as desperate residents tried to use garden hose pipes to stop the encroaching flames.
Fires also continued to rage on the Portuguese mainland for the fourth day running, as temperatures peaked at over 35 degrees Celsius in the north of the country.
On Tuesday a 24-year-old man was arrested accused of starting a fire in the mountains of São Roque outside Funchal.
Police sources reportedly told local media the suspect "has a criminal record as an arsonist".
Nearly 800 officers and 270 fire trucks were deployed against outbreaks in the Aveiro and Braga regions, according to the authorities.
A major highway was closed, powerlines cut and large buildings destroyed as the blaze swept quickly from town to town.
Firefighters said steep hills, dense woodland and large amounts of dry pine trees after a recent drought had made it particularly difficult to tackle the flames once they began to spread.
Madeira has been experiencing exceptionally hot summer conditions and little rain for several weeks, with temperatures reaching 44 degrees Celsius on some days.
However, cooler temperatures forecast for Wednesday are expected to help ease the situation on the island, according to regional president Miguel Albuquerque.
On Monday morning a state of emergency was declared by authorities in the Porto region, as firefighters battled to control the fires.
Forest fires are not unusual in Portugal during the hot summer months. In 2013, more than 150,000 hectares of forest were destroyed as blazes moved through mountainous towns.
The previous summer, the Portuguese government appealed for help from the European Union as dozens of fires raged across the country, killing several residents.
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